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Our China EFL Adventure

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ON THE PROCESS OF GETTING A JOB IN CHINA:
MOTIVATION AND EXPERIENCE

NB: I do not include my girlfriend’s name, nor my own for that matter, not through any wish to deceive but to protect ourselves from possible recrimination should this article be read by our future employers while we are under their employment. I hope that any readers understand my reasons for doing this.

Young Couple

We, that is, my girlfriend and I, are at present awaiting our contracts and visa documentation before going to China for a 12-month contract teaching oral English to 3- to 12-year-olds in Urumqi, Xinjiang Province. It is a city of approximately 2.5 million people, ethnically divided into two main groups: Uyghur (45%) and Han Chinese (40%). This diversity (not forgetting other, less numerous ethnic groups) is something that appealed to us in accepting to go there. Admittedly, typing ‘Urumqi’ into a search engine does not give a great first impression as after the ubiquitous ‘Wikipedia’ entry and prosaic tourist websites. Most web space appears devoted to coverage of the 2009 riots in which nearly 200 people died. Of course, our overall research was much less superficial than this and, at a distance at least, I feel we have a rather good understanding of what we can expect our new home to be like. However, I’ll say nothing about our expectations now to save the embarrassment of being totally wrong in fact and in writing... which brings me to the ‘why’ of this article.

In researching teaching opportunities in China, my girlfriend (a 26-year-old Australian who already has 18 months of teaching experience) and I (a 29-year-old British citizen with none) made use of a range of online material, fortuitously finding a link to Middle Kingdom Life on a job ad. This site was perfect for us: detailed, erudite, full of interesting articles and advice about life in China. Instead of telling you what we found most useful, I suggest just reading the full thing through as it is presented. As not everything will apply to every person, it would be disingenuous of me to criticise, or compliment, anything without actually having any experience of living and working in China. Suffice it to say, don’t even send out your resume without first doing some research! In return for all the good advice we found on this site I want to give something back: a series of articles relating to teaching in China from application to completion of contract. Hopefully, our experiences may serve some practical purpose in helping others decide whether or not this is something they might wish to do themselves.

How We Came to Choose China

I strongly recommend reading the article on anonymous China EFL forums as it correctly warns one about putting too much emphasis on anonymous posters' biased opinions

Our own reasons for choosing to go to China are not so uncommon. We met in March 2010, she was backpacking around the UK after having completed a six month teaching contract in Vietnam and I was coming to the end of my undergraduate studies. After university, I took a menial job in the north of Scotland, disliked the staff accommodation and moved to Edinburgh where a good friend gave me a roof and employment. During this time my girlfriend returned to Australia to get a two year work visa. Unfortunately, after her return the hours started to dry up at my work (a zero-hour contract) and she found it difficult to find a job in ESL teaching. At around the same time, an opening became available at the youth hostel where we had first met (I worked there part-time during my studies) and we decided to go back. I found a job at a local hotel and Angela eventually managed to get a position with an Internet based company teaching English via Skype. All the while we took it in turns to manage the hostel.

That winter was a harsh one and was badly affecting business. Heavy snow and the Icelandic ash cloud meant that corporate clients cancelled at the hotel; hours were cut or cancelled at the last minute. Everything was becoming quite stressful for us and eventually I quit the hotel job to focus on looking at other options. Managing the youth hostel paid very little money—even if we saved a little by living rent and utilities free—and offered no prospects. Nonetheless, interview after interview for better jobs fell flat. Quite simply, more experienced people who would not otherwise have been applying for the same jobs as I found themselves forced to take a few steps backward in their career.

At this time, my girlfriend started to put forward the idea that I do a CELTA course and we leave Scotland for work overseas. I was initially reticent, but was finally won over by a guest at the hostel who had been in the field for 14 years and doing very well out of it (she’s now in Saudi Arabia and doing even better). I capitulated when it was suggested that I do the course in Thailand and, with that decision made, we started making plans to leave.

Our luck started to change immediately. Within weeks we had returned to Edinburgh, the same friend as before got me my old job back, with a promotion, and we both worked as many hours as we could for the next six months. By the time we left we were in much more comfortable frames of mind than we had been earlier in the year, financially we had turned a corner and a sense of adventure was filling us with optimism.

September 2011 was a tough month. I studied for my CELTA with International House, Bangkok. If you’re considering doing an ESL certificate I can strongly recommend them, all the trainers are professional, knowledgeable and fun. Even so, a CELTA course is no stroll in the park. It is fair to say that most days you can expect to be working from 8 a.m. until maybe as late as 1 a.m. For those, like me, with no previous teaching experience or awareness of the rules of grammar native speakers’ use without thinking, it can be a difficult 120 contact hours (plus the rest). That said, a lot can be learnt in four weeks and the course is certainly worth the investment if you want to work for the more reputable ESL schools. Above all, a TEFL course, of any description, shows very clearly whether or not one possesses the correct skills and personal profile necessary in becoming a competent teacher. Bluntly, not everyone can teach: Simply being able to speak your native language fluently is not sufficient for the vast majority of professional ESL companies.

After the CELTA course, we moved north to Chiang Mai, Thailand’s second city. Not a bad move at all considering that Bangkok became flooded just a couple of weeks later. During all of this time my girlfriend had continued to work online and now we could finally look at getting her back into a real classroom. Not quite having thought things through, we didn’t know exactly what country we wanted to commit to for the next year of our lives. We considered Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and China. In the end we came to a decision to focus on the Middle Kingdom, while keeping our eyes open for opportunities elsewhere. Finding one advertised position, we sent out our resumes. Thankfully, we had a rude awakening to EFL teaching in China because of it.

What especially impressed me was the forthrightness with which we were supplied with the email addresses of some teachers no longer with the school...

This first experience was a disaster and I’m glad it didn’t work out. We’d found, as I said, a school offering placements for couples, the recruiter liked our application package and so we arranged a Skype interview. Things didn’t turn out quite to plan. Just minutes before the arranged interview time, we received a message saying couples were no longer allowed to work at the school. Baffled, we called anyway to discover from a very apologetic and obviously frustrated foreign recruitment officer that the school’s owners had overnight decided to ban non-whites, those over 30, overweight people and couples. Not too encouraging, I think you’ll agree. Looking online for any reviews of this school we were not too concerned about our sudden unsuitability, the feedback was terrible.

It was at this time that we came across Middle Kingdom Life, something we will, I think, forever remain grateful. Better informed, we resumed our search for employment and picked out our favourites, better scrutinising them as best we could prior to making any first contact. Of particular value to us immediately was the article on the psychopathology of anonymous China forum users. As you've just read, we had been partly basing our choice of schools on the questionable opinions of anonymous forum members. I strongly recommend reading the article on anonymous China EFL forums as it correctly warns one about putting too much emphasis on anonymous posters' biased opinions.

Screening Prospective Schools

With our next group of prospective schools, we ensured that the contact email address and company website were genuine before sending off our resumes. The next day the HR manager from one of them contacted us and wanted to arrange an immediate interview. We had to politely decline, but asked her to send more details about the school. Her initial email was full of spelling and grammatical errors, which made me wary. Satisfied with the reply we received, an interview was arranged for the following day. What especially impressed me was the forthrightness with which we were supplied with the email addresses of some teachers no longer with the school and current foreign teacher testimony. We were also sent a draft contract to look over.

The interview itself was enjoyable. We spoke first to a current foreign teacher there who gave us a quite frank overview of the school: “Yes, there were some initial problems settling in,” “No, pay has never been late,” “Yes, the staff turnover is sometimes quite high, but usually it’s because of teachers finishing contracts”. We discovered exactly what was expected of us, what the real (not the advertised) workload would be and what kind of support we could look forward to. Second, we spoke to the HR Manager who assured us that we were just what she was looking for and that she’d be happy for us to join the company at one of their schools across China. Even better, our initial training was to be undertaken at their main school in Chongqing and that they would arrange onward transport. Further, we were not pressured into making an immediate decision and asked to call back if we wanted to accept.

The monthly salary and working conditions we will agree to, while not comprehensively detailed here, are as follows:

  • 40 hours work per week (of which no more than 25 will be contact);
  • No more than 12 students per class;
  • Chinese teaching assistant;
  • Monday and Tuesdays off;
  • Overtime to be paid at 120RMB per hour or taken as time off in lieu;
  • Shift work, either from 9am-5pm or 1pm-9pm.
  • Extracurricular activities organised within normal working times;
  • Starting salary of 8,500RMB per month;
  • 1,000RMB monthly housing allowance paid after first month;
  • 1,000RMB pay rise after three months;
  • 1,000RMB secondary pay rise after six months;
  • 3,000RMB flight allowance paid every six months;
  • 5 days paid holiday after seven months (at employer’s discretion);
  • Accidental injury insurance (paid by the employer);
  • Free Mandarin lessons;
  • Working visas (and Z-visas) paid for by school;
  • Twelve month initial contract, and;
  • The opportunity to relocate to other schools.

Doing the sums, after six months we will both be making a base salary of 10,333RMB per month (approximately GBP1,017 as of 26/10/11) which, even after tax, means that we will be earning a combined income of about the same as we were back in Scotland. Of course, we shall have to wait and see as to whether or not all this actually comes to pass. At the moment, however, we have little to no reason to believe that the offer we will accept is deceitful in any way.

Taking into account the cost of living back home, financially this is a good move for us. We are hoping to leave China after our contracts expire with the majority, hopefully more, of one total annual salary saved. With that money we will both be able to afford the fees for postgraduate study, extensive further travel or investment in a small business. Thankfully, decisions we can take together at a later date next year.

Something we both liked about the school is that they do not offer end of contract bonuses, but give pay rises over the course of six months with only the final flight allowance to collect at the end. The logic of this payment system surpasses the bonus model in two regards: First, it motivates good teachers to stay longer and renew their contracts, and; second, concerns over receiving end-of-contract bonuses are removed. As so many of the forum complaints revolved about end-of-contract bonuses not being paid, we appreciate the philosophy at the company we are going to work for. So, that’s where things stand at the moment.

All the best in your own job searches.


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Middle Kingdom Life is the premier award-winning educational website for foreign teachers and Western expats in China. It was founded by an American professor in psychology and sociology for the purpose of disseminating valid and reliable information about living and teaching in China. The site's mission is to protect and enhance the interests and social welfare of foreign teachers and Western expats in China.

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